‘No record’ of Matt Hancock meeting Tory donor who owns stake in £346m COVID contract

The British government has “no record” of how a meeting was set up between former health secretary Matt Hancock and a firm that has donated more than £1m to the Conservatives.

Martin Williams www.opendemocracy.net 

The company, Bridgemere Group, holds a significant stake in a private health firm that was later awarded a multimillion-pound COVID contract.

The Department of Health has been accused of “very serious” transparency failures after openDemocracy learned that another healthcare investor was also present at the same meeting, but not named in official records.

In January 2020, Hancock met Bridgemere chairman Steve Morgan to discuss “NHS use of private sector capacity”. The company owns a “significant stake” in one of the UK’s largest private health companies, Circle Health, which was later awarded a £346.6m contract to provide hospital beds during the COVID emergency.

Also present at the meeting was Martin Hughes, the CEO of Toscafund, which is the majority shareholder in Circle Health via its associated companies.

But neither Hughes nor Toscafund was named in official government transparency data.

Two special advisers working for the Department of Health, Allan Nixon and Emma Dean, also did not declare their attendance – despite disclosing meetings with other companies around the same time.

The revelations come amid growing concerns over government transparency. Ministers have admitted using private email addresses to conduct government business, and Hancock and other ministers have been accused of not declaring meetings with firms that later won COVID contracts.

The Department of Health told openDemocracy that it was “unable to establish who may have arranged this meeting”. A spokesperson did not comment on the failure to disclose the fact that Toscafund and two special advisers were also present.

The minutes and agenda from the meeting are also not held by the department.

Secretaries of state should not be having shady meetings with major Tory party donors

“These are deeply troubling revelations. No ifs, no buts – secretaries of state should not be having shady meetings with major Tory party donors,” Labour MP Margaret Hodge, the former chair of the Public Accounts Committee, told openDemocracy

“Why are there no proper records of the meeting? Where is the chain of accountability? Was the government trying to sell off more of our vital NHS on the eve of the pandemic?

“This whole thing absolutely stinks of another abuse of power by Matt Hancock,” she added.

Since Hancock resigned last month after breaching COVID rules by kissing a colleague in his ministerial office, it has emerged that he and other health ministers used private emails to discuss COVID contracts with business leaders.

The Sunday Times also reported that Gina Coladangelo – the adviser whom Hancock was pictured embracing – conducted government business on her private Oliver Bonas email address, the retailer set up by her husband.

According to its accounts, Bridgemere is owned via a holding company based in a tax haven. One of its subsidiary firms planned to continue claiming furlough support from the government.

Bridgemere donated £1m to the Conservative Party ahead of the 2019 election – a few months before the January 2020 meeting with Hancock. The firm has continued to donate a further £250,000 since the start of the pandemic.

Transparency failure

Revelations about Hancock’s meeting with Bridgemere have also exposed failings in the government’s handling of Freedom of Information requests.

Two separate requests about the meeting were submitted independently; one by openDemocracy, and the other by a freelance journalist. But despite asking the same questions, they received different responses.

openDemocracy was told that “no record” was held of who attended the meeting. But a freelance journalist – who shared the response with openDemocracy – was provided with the names of four people, including Toscafund’s Martin Hughes and Bridgemere’s Steve Morgan. Bridgemere and Toscafund are major financial backers of Circle Health.

It also reveals that a document discussing Circle Health was circulated in relation to the January 2020 meeting. The document says: “More use should be made of the independent sector to speed up patients’ access to care”.

It adds: “Overall independent sector has c8,500 beds, with similar spare capacity.”

Reports say the government paid around £200m a month for 8,000 private sector hospital beds when the COVID emergency hit.

Previously, the only public acknowledgement of the meeting was a reference in Hancock’s list of appointments. This list fails to mention Toscafund’s presence.

It also claims that “Circle Group” attended the meeting – in an apparent misnaming of Circle Heath. However, Circle Health categorically denies going to the meeting and none of its staff are listed as being present.

Sue Hawley, senior director at Spotlight on Corruption, said the failure to keep records of Hancock’s meeting was a “very serious breach of transparency requirements”.

“There is no excuse whatsoever for these kinds of meetings with party donors, which raise potentially very egregious conflicts of interest not to be recorded and declared,” she said. “This requires proper investigation and those responsible for this lapse need to face real consequences.”

The Labour Party has called for an independent investigation into the use of private emails by ministers during the pandemic. The party’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, has now told openDemocracy that this should also investigate undeclared meetings.

“Matt Hancock’s first priority was always enriching his mates, not protecting the public,” she said. “This racket must end.”

This government seems intent on avoiding scrutiny… We should all be asking: what have they got to hide?

The SNP’s health spokesperson, Dr Philippa Whitford, also condemned the failure to keep records of the meeting. She said it was “utterly inappropriate… regardless of whether there’s no record because they used private emails, or no record because no record was kept”.

“If negotiations were carried out through private emails – which are not recorded and not documented – that’s just unacceptable.”

Emails released by the Good Law Project yesterday show that companies trying to win COVID contracts were directed to a Gmail account to be fast-tracked if they had connections to ministers.

A so-called “VIP lane” was already known to exist for companies offering to provide PPE during the start of the pandemic. But a second VIP lane for Test and Trace contracts has now also been revealed.

Gemma Abbott, legal director of the Good Law Project said: “This government seems intent on avoiding scrutiny, so it comes as no surprise to hear there’s no record of how a meeting with a Conservative Party donor came to pass.

“Politicians and officials relying on private communication channels to govern the country flies in the face of transparency and accountability. We should all be asking: what have they got to hide?”

Boris Johnson ends Covid as a ‘me problem’ and makes it a ‘you problem’

The prime minister’s overriding imperative – you could tell by the very many times he said it – is to “move from universal government diktat to relying on people’s personal responsibility”. He’s basically had enough of making all the decisions, and wants someone else to have a go. Absent an obvious single candidate, he’s throwing it on to all of us.

Zoe Williams www.theguardian.com (extract)

In one way, it’s a relief, since his diktats were always so hit and miss; and yet it was a little unsettling to hear his rationale. “We must be honest: if we can’t reopen society in the next few weeks, we must ask ourselves, when will we be able to return to normal?” At least technically, it’s the middle of summer. We’re outdoors, schools will have their holiday “firebreak”, winter is when the virus is at its most powerful, so if not now, when? He sounds much more like a guy in B&Q, who’s just lost patience with looking for the right shade of white – what do you want him to do, go to Homebase? – than he does like a man carefully weighing up the intricate and often incomparable risks and benefits as have been produced for him by the nation’s finest minds. Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, two of those very minds, flanked him with almost palpable reluctance.

Planning applications validated by EDDC for week beginning 21 June

Johnson to announce controversial plans for greater NHS control

Boris Johnson is set to spark a political row this week by announcing plans to seize greater control of the NHS, despite warnings that the “power grab” will see ministers blamed for delays in treatment and closure of local hospital units.

Denis Campbell www.theguardian.com

The prime minister has told the new health secretary, Sajid Javid, to put the long-awaited health and care bill before parliament despite Javid’s own misgivings and concerns among hospital bosses and doctors’ leaders.

Conservative MPs are becoming increasingly anxious that the bill, which involves the biggest shake-up of the NHS in England in a decade, could become a damaging political drama, make people question Tory handling of the NHS and prove a gift to Labour, which last week called for the bill to be scrapped.

Javid is expected to lay the bill before parliament on Tuesday after the prime minister overruled his plea to delay its introduction until the autumn. Johnson has told Matt Hancock’s successor to press ahead with the legislation despite Javid’s concern that it will prove “controversial” and involves “significant areas of contention” which have yet to be resolved.

The health secretary’s new powers would enable him to abolish NHS arm’s-length bodies and intervene much earlier in deciding if an A&E or maternity unit deemed unsafe, over staffing problems for example, had to shut.

Hospital bosses have voiced serious concern to the Guardian about the government’s plan to hand Javid such big new “powers of direction”. The NHS Confederation and NHS Providers, the two groups which represent health service trusts, both warned that this could allow ministers to wield undue influence over the NHS and reduce its independence.

Matthew Taylor, the confederation’s chief executive, said health service chiefs were broadly supportive of the bill, which seeks to undo some of the most damaging effects of the last Tory overhaul of the NHS – then health secretary Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act 2012.

But, Taylor added: “They remain concerned that some of the proposals could lead to heavy handed ministerial involvement in day-to-day matters affecting the NHS, such as the closing or opening of new services for patients, which could go against the advice and expertise of local leaders who know what is best for their communities.

“We can’t risk playing political football with the NHS given the challenges it faces.”

NHS Providers cautioned that the heath secretary’s beefed-up powers could lead to service chiefs nationally and locally coming “under political pressure or interference”.

Saffron Cordery, its deputy chief executive, said: “There is no suggestion here that a publicly-funded service like the NHS should not be held to account. Rather, that the strategic direction is the domain of politicians, who should then allow the people involved in operational and clinical roles – with day-to-day responsibility for supporting patient care – the space to deliver those strategic objectives without undue political pressure or interference.”

The bill will replace the clinical commissioning groups Lansley’s reforms created with new bodies known as integrated care systems – regional groupings of providers of different sorts of healthcare working with their counterparts in social care.

Ben Howlett, a former Tory MP who is now the managing director of the Public Policy Projects thinktank, warned Johnson that the move could backfire.

“As a result of the new Health and Care Act, ministers will no longer need to horsetrade with NHS bosses to set priorities, as the secretary of state makes himself directly accountable for the provision of services,” Howlett said.

“MPs will for the first time in over a decade find constituents asking why there are long waiting lists and poor cancer outcomes without being able to write to [NHS England chief executive] Simon Stevens for answers. My advice to the new secretary of state – beware the law of unintended consequences.”

One health policy expert, who asked not to be named, said: “Politically this bill is a tricky sell, even though the government has an 80-seat majority. The penny is dropping among MPs that there’s more in the bill than just boring, technocratic NHS issues.

“How does this bill help tackle key NHS challenges like waiting times and chronic understaffing? It doesn’t. That may become a problem.”

The bill, which only relates to the NHS in England, does include plans to reduce some privatisation by removing the duty on the NHS to put care contracts out to tender. However, the British Medical Association, the doctors’ union, warned that it could lead to the new integrated care systems (ICSes) offering large contracts to private firms without any tendering process, in a repeat of the “Tory cronies” scandal, involving billions of pounds of deals for personal protective equipment (PPE) for NHS staff, seen during the Covid pandemic.

Dr David Wrigley, the BMA’s deputy chair of council, said: “We are concerned that private health providers like Virgin Care could be given seats on the boards of ICSes and therefore potentially be involved in deciding who gets what contracts. And we are very concerned that the bill could means that contracts are just handed out to the private sector, without a tendering process.”

The bill is the first of a series of important decisions that Javid, who is barely a week into his new role as the boss of the Department of Health and Social Care, will have to take in the next fortnight.

He and the board of NHS England are close to deciding who will succeed Stevens, who is stepping down this month after more than seven years in the job. Ministers want his replacement to have a much lower profile and not cause trouble by regularly lobbying in public for the NHS to be given more money and the government to radically reform social care, as Stevens has done.

The new NHS boss, whoever it is, will have significantly less power than that wielded by Stevens, as a result of the legislation.

Reports on Sunday said that Javid had ruled out Dido Harding, the Tory peer who runs the government’s heavily criticised test and trace programme. NHS bosses hope that will help clear the way for Amanda Pritchard, Stevens’ deputy, who is widely admired in the service after her stint running Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospital trust in London. Sir James Mackey, the chief executive of the Northumbria Healthcare trust, is also seen as a strong contender.

Javid, Johnson and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, also have to decide imminently whether to increase the government’s 1% pay offer to NHS staff, which health unions have described as “pathetic” and “an insult”. The Royal College of Nursing is gearing up to hold its first-ever ballot of its 450,000-strong membership for possible strike action.

The NHS pay review body submitted its recommendations to Javid last week. It is thought to have advised that staff deserve more like a 2% increase, especially after their widely praised efforts during the Covid pandemic. However, the RCN is demanding 12.5%.

Teignbridge to act on empty homes

Teignbridge councillors have backed plans to tackle the number of empty homes in the area and bring them back into use.

Ollie Heptinstall, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk

Members of the ruling executive heard on Monday that, despite the total number more than halving since 2008, 345 homes in the district are still empty – 131 of which have been unoccupied for two years or more and are classified as ‘truly empty’.

The overall figure increased last year by 22: blamed on the impact of the pandemic and the temporary slowdown of the housing market during stricter lockdowns.

Councillors approved a policy to try to reduce the number of long-term empty homes, which includes possible enforcement action, compulsory purchase orders and enforced sales if owners fail to co-operate.

Presenting the empty homes policy document, Councillor Martin Wrigley (Lib Dem, Dawlish North East), portfolio holder for communities, housing and IT said: “We all know an empty home on the street can be not only problematic but a real source of problems.

“To get a better gauge we need to look at empty homes in two ways. Firstly, homes that are between occupants, waiting to obtain probate or undergoing renovation or a myriad of other specific reasons. Secondly, homes that are, as we might say, genuinely empty.

“Genuinely empty homes, or more precisely ones that have been empty for two or more years, and so start to attract increased council tax, can be a blight on their neighbours and the source of real issues in the street. This is a much lower number. This is about 131 in the district, of which under half have been empty for five years or more.”

Properties that do not classify for exemptions pay double council tax after being empty for two years: three times the rate after five years and four times after 10 years or more.

Cllr Wrigley also revealed that in the last two years the council had taken formal action on 59 properties.

The empty homes policy document states: “Bringing long term empty homes back into use helps the council address the needs of the district as well as attracting grant funding from central government – New Homes Bonus (NHB). In Teignbridge £27.6 million NHB has been raised over a 12 year period.”

“Targeting those properties which have been empty between six months and  two years is more likely to have an impact on NHB and increase income for Teignbridge District Council, whilst properties which have been empty for two years or more are more likely to have a detrimental impact on neighbours and their surrounding area.”

It says the council will work: “directly and assertively with owners of unfurnished properties empty between six months and two years by encouraging them and providing tools and mechanisms to bring their property back into use”.

The document adds: “Where owners do not respond to attempts to communicate with them and there is no evidence that they are taking action to bring about reoccupation, or where the property has been identified as ‘high risk’ using the empty property risk assessment, a zero tolerance approach will be adopted and the most appropriate enforcement action considered to bring the property back into use.”

Discussing the proposals, Councillor Stephen Purser (Con, Teign Valley), asked if councillors could be told confidentially which properties are empty in their wards.

“Obviously being a rural patch, I suspect there are some little lane places that have been overgrown for years and possibly nobody knows about them,” Cllr Purser said.

In response, Councillor Alan Connett (Lib Dem, Kenton & Starcross and leader of the council), said GDPR rules would likely not allow the council to tell a councillor which homes were empty in their wards. “In my case for example it’s usually the neighbours who tell me. I can think of several in my ward that have been reported to me by concerned residents,” Cllr Connett said.

Cllr Wrigley added: “Certainly in my patch I’m told frequently about when there is an empty home. There was one in Dawlish in a particular street that was causing real problems for the neighbours. Working with the team, we’ve now got that one being restored and I think someone’s moving into it relatively soon.”

The council said that due to limited resources, it will prioritise Newton Abbot (including Kingskerswell and Kingsteignton), Dawlish and Teignmouth due to the “high housing need” in these areas.

BUDGET SURPLUS

It came as the executive also heard that the authority is currently operating at a budget surplus of £86,570 for the current financial year, as of the end of May 2021.

Corporate services are forecast to be just over £200,000 under budget, but leisure/green space service income has been hit hard by the pandemic and general rental income has been reduced.